BRATTLEBORO — Without cause, tenants can be evicted from their residences with proper notice.
"This is happening so much more than it has in years before," Marta Gossage of Brattleboro said. "When you understand how often it's happening and the demographic it's affecting, it's just breathtaking."
Gossage submitted a petition to trigger the March 7 vote for Brattleboro residents to decide if they want to require just-cause evictions in town. Public hearings will be held 6:15 p.m. Friday, Feb. 3, in the Select Board Meeting Room in the Municipal Center and 6:15 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 7, in the same place.
The proposed charter amendment would protect tenants from eviction without "just cause" such as a breach of a written rental agreement, violation of state laws regarding tenant obligations in rental agreements, non-payment of rent and a tenant's failure to accept written, reasonable good faith renewal terms. It "excludes from ‘just cause’ the expiration of a rental agreement as sole grounds for termination of tenancy."
Gossage said her group chose to exempt owner-occupied duplexes and triplexes, accessory dwelling units (ADU), and sublets or rooms in owner-occupied homes in their proposal because they don't want to impede people from making ADUs or offering rooms in their homes.
"We wanted to be very aware of the ecosystem, where we didn't want to inhibit new housing units from being created," she said, noting how those in the substance use recovery community heavily rely on the type of housing that would be exempted from the proposed charter amendment.
The group also tried to think of ways landlords might effectively evict someone. Substantial rent increases could be one avenue.
So, the proposal calls for a 12 percent cap on rent increases.
"This is not meant to be a standalone rent stabilization because those things are mostly done at the 5 percent caps and what not," Gossage said, calling the proposed figure "extremely generous" as other caps tend to be about 5 or 10 percent.
Gossage said she got involved in the effort through an initiative organized by Rights & Democracy "but my interest in the subject matter preceded that."
About a year ago, a friend called crying. She told Gossage she received a 60-day notice from her landlord to vacate her Brattleboro residence.
"And that shocked me," Gossage said. "She was in that neighborhood for like 10 years and in that apartment for about seven years and she was a fixture here in Brattleboro."
Gossage said her friend worked in various jobs and "was not somebody you would think would be evicted." When her friend called Vermont Legal Aid, she found out the eviction was legal.
Gossage estimated the process of finding housing took about five-and-a-half months and resulted in the friend having to move to Putney.
"All of her life, all of her support system was in walkable downtown Brattleboro," Gossage said. "Now, it costs her so much more time and gas to get to and from work. She's not with her friends. She's isolated."
Gossage described how her friend overstayed the eviction notice, which created fear and stress, and sought housing by placing flyers on bulletin boards in public spaces.
"So obviously my heart was hurting really, really bad, just watching her cry," Gossage said. "There was a change in her personality, just trauma."
A part of Rights & Democracy for about six or seven years now, Gossage wrote "housing" when she participated in a survey asking members about their interests. Then she was connected with the housing justice coordinator for the group and became involved in just-cause initiatives.
Several people were part of the local effort including Ann Zimmerman and Legal Aid attorney Zoe Cunningham-Cook. Gossage is aware of similar efforts occurring in about a dozen other communities across Vermont including Barre, Hartford, Montpelier and Winooski.
About two years ago, the Burlington City Council approved a just-cause eviction measure. However, the House of Representatives couldn't get enough votes to override Gov. Phil Scott's veto.
With changes in the Democratic and Progressive caucuses, Gossage's group believes a charter amendment for Brattleboro could survive a veto. They're also drumming up support from Windham County lawmakers.
"It's a little different landscape," Gossage said, "and just-cause is gaining popularity across the nation and Vermont."
Her group collected 478 signatures, the exact number needed to trigger a ballot vote. That represents 5 percent of the voter checklist.
About 50 percent of Brattleboro residents rent housing, Gossage said.
"All of us work a full-time job or more, and have families and obligations, and life's not great for us," she said. "So it's been a really frustrating experience to try and organize when there isn't emotional cognitive bandwidth available to those most affected."
Her group is looking for people to speak at the upcoming hearings and promote the March 7 vote. They can be reached at email@example.com.
Town Clerk Hilary Francis said the Select Board is required to hold two public hearings any time a charter change is proposed via the petition process. The first must occur within at least 30 days of the vote and the second needs to happen within 10 days of the first hearing.
"Because the State of Vermont’s termination of tenancy clauses are encoded in a state statute, including no-cause eviction, we require permission from the state legislature to allow the Town of Brattleboro to create the ordinance, which will involve a change to the town charter," states an information sheet provided by Gossage. "Having many towns request this together will hopefully show the state that [just-cause eviction] is something many Vermonters want."